Suleyman Research Paper

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In Europe, which trembled at the appearance of his armies more than once, the Ottoman sultan Suleyman I was known as “the Magnificent.” Throughout the Islamic world, he was better known as Kanuni, “the Lawgiver,” and was believed to embody the highest principles of justice and harmony in a ruler. For his force of will and his many accomplishments, Suleyman deserves consideration as one of the great leaders of history.

As sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Suleyman I pursued a policy of militant Islam and imperialism. Suleyman’s deep faith in God and upbringing in the warrior traditions of the Ottoman Turks required that he should someday lead armies in battle, defeat infidels in the dar al-harb (“abode of war”), and give law and provide order for the faithful in the dar al Islam (“abode of Islam”). Suleyman’s father, Selim the Grim (1470–1520), had extended the Ottoman Empire past the frontiers of Kurdish and Turkmen potentates into what is now northern Iraq and had conquered Egypt, Syria, and the Arabian Peninsula, bringing the holy cities of Mecca and Medina under Ottoman control.

The Ottoman Empire was not a hereditary monarchy, nor was it elective. Nevertheless, by killing his brothers and their descendants, Selim had cleared the way for the ascension of Suleyman by the time Selim died of cancer in 1520.

The young sultan appears to have been confident, proud, and forceful. According to the ambassador from Venice, Suleyman rewarded his supporters by showering them with gifts and punished those who had not shown loyalty during his ascension. He gave clemency to those who allegedly had committed crimes against his father, and most important, he rewarded his bodyguard—the janissaries—with liberal cash disbursements. The janissaries were slave soldiers who were supplied by a levy upon the children of Christians. These soldiers trained with the composite bow and firearms and provided Suleyman with a powerful army. The young sultan had cultural interests as well: he wrote highly esteemed poetry, and he commissioned the architect Sinan to beautify the Ottoman capital of Istanbul.

War in the name of religion was at the heart of Suleyman’s view of the world and his understanding of what it meant to be leader of the Ottoman state and its people. Holy war would not only content the janissaries, but also win the favor of God. Suleyman’s subjects shared in the belief that God would approve of such warfare and reward the devout with prosperity. Early in his reign, Suleyman demonstrated his abilities as leader of the faithful in the constant small-scale raids and reprisals that raged back and forth on the border between the Ottoman Empire and the Christian kingdom of Hungary. On 16 February 1521, Suleyman marched out of Constantinople at the head of an army that numbered more than 100,000 men. Forty Turkish vessels sailed up the Danube River in support, and ten thousand wagons brought powder and shot. Suleyman’s army eventually captured the Serbian capital of Belgrade. When the defenders of this town surrendered, they were massacred. It is not known whether Suleyman approved of this atrocity or not. On 18 August 1521, the cathedral of Belgrade was consecrated as a mosque. Even as the great victory was celebrated at home, Suleyman planned yet further conquests.

More often than not, over the next forty-five years, the sultan could be found at the head of his armies. In 1522, after five months of siege, Suleyman subdued Rhodes, the Christian base of piracy in the Mediterranean. Four years later, Suleyman led a major invasion of the kingdom of Hungary, on 29 August fighting the decisive battle of Mohacs in which the Hungarian king Louis II (1516–1526) was slain and his countrymen utterly defeated. Between 1528 and 1529, Suleyman led his victorious armies into the heart of central Europe and lay siege to the Habsburg capital of Vienna. This marked the furthest extent of Suleyman’s advance into Christendom. Far from their depots of supplies and confronted by unexpectedly stiff resistance, Suleyman’s forces withdrew to Istanbul, but Suleyman was undeterred in his dream to become “Lord of the Age.”

The Ottoman Empire’s other great rival in the world was the Safavid Empire of Persia. The Safavids had adopted Shiite Islam as their state religion, their messianic mission clashed with the Sunni Islam of the Ottoman Empire. Suleyman invaded Safavid territory and in 1534 captured Baghdad and most of Iraq. Southern Yemen fell in 1539, and in 1546 the sultan’s armies captured Basra, in southern Iraq. The Shiite tribes in the south of Iraq stubbornly resisted the Ottomans, however, and the region was never completely subdued. Meanwhile, renewed war with the Habsburgs continued to preoccupy Suleyman to the end of his reign. In 1565 Suleyman unleashed his forces on the Christian stronghold of Malta; the ensuing siege failed disastrously at the cost of between twenty thousand and thirty thousand men. The next year, Suleyman died leading an Ottoman army in yet another campaign against the Habsburgs in Hungary.

The most famous and lasting achievement of Suleyman’s reign, the creation of a single legal code for the entire Ottoman Empire that reconciled Islamic law with the law of the sultans, was not actually the work of Suleyman himself, but was the accomplishment of a legal expert named Ebu’s-Su’ud Efendi. In the decades that followed the fall of Constantinople in 1454 and throughout the early sixteenth century, Islamic legal experts had slowly codified the laws of the sultans. By the time of Suleyman, this work was nearly completed, and sultanic laws had been mostly regularized and replaced the many local laws and customs of the empire. The great problem was how to reconcile Islamic law with the legal code of the sultan. As a high-ranking judge, Ebu’s-Su’ud used his authority to issue a fetva (fatwa)—“a proclamation issued by a qualified religious authority in response to questions of law and usage” (Goffman 2002, 76)—to bring the two codes of law into harmony. Ebu’s-Su’ud also added the title of caliph, meaning leader of the entire Islamic community, to the many titles of Suleyman, making the sultan the ultimate religious authority for all Muslims.

In Islamic tradition, Suleyman the Lawgiver will always be remembered as the “second Solomon,” a monarch who embodied a perfect concept of justice in accord with the Qur’an. His reign marked a period of justice and harmony for those of the Islamic faith.


  1. Bridge, A. (1983). Suleiman the Magnificent: Scourge of heaven. New York: F. Watts.
  2. Goffman, D. (2002). The Ottoman Empire and early modern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Hammer-Purgstall, J. F. von. (1827–1835). Geschichte des Osmanischen Reichs [History of the Ottoman Turks]. Pest, Hungary: Hartleben.
  4. Imber, C. (1997). Ebu’s-su’ud: The Islamic legal tradition. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  5. Lybyer, A. H. (1978). The government of the Ottoman Empire in the time of Suleiman the Magnificent New York: AMS Press.
  6. Merriman, R. B. (1966). Suleiman the Magnificent, 1520–1566. New York: Cooper Square Publishers.

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